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Sewing to the beat of the drum

The Smokey Hill Drum Group, plays at the DEBWE center on Thursday evenings. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

The DEBWE headquarters on the 500 block of Washington Avenue is a busy place these days, as volunteers work to create regalia of fur, leather, cloth, beadwork, feathers and quills for a Nov. 30 powwow at the Detroit Lakes Armory.

The colorful beads, cloth, ribbons and other material — as well as funding to help make the community gathering, feast and powwow a success — are available thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Lake Region Arts Council.

DEBWE is an organization dedicated to teaching traditional native ways, beliefs and culture to everybody who is interested, regardless of race, age or tribal affiliation.

Whether the lesson is on the deep significance of the drum or the pipe, or the traditional ways of harvesting wild rice or making maple syrup, the DEBWE group is open, friendly, and glad to teach any and all who show up.

The group was founded by Roxanne and Rob Fairbanks, who are small business owners in Detroit Lakes.

Roxanne grew up on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in north-central North Dakota and Rob grew up in Detroit Lakes.

In addition to fighting negative stereotypes, the Fairbanks’ have long wanted people to have the chance to draw wisdom and peace of mind from the deep well of traditional native ways, culture and beliefs.

At the same time, they wanted better understanding of the same things for themselves.

“One of our biggest goals, and anybody is welcome to get involved in any of it, we’re working on how to bridge the cultural gap,” Roxanne said. “A lot of non-native people will learn what we are and who we are — we’re just like anyone else.”

Rob, whose father was native and mother was white, has at times faced discrimination from both sides. He didn’t get the chance to learn much about native ways when he was growing up, and he says there are a lot of people in the same situation.

“It would be nice to learn some of my language. I grew up here and only know three or four words and that’s not right,” he said.

It would be nice to participate in a sweat lodge and other ceremonies, and things like that could be held in Detroit Lakes for people who don’t have the opportunity to participate on the reservation, he said.

DEBWE is located next door to the newspaper office, across from the VFW.

There is a store in front that sells native-made foods and crafts, and a roomy area in back dominated by a large round table that Rob made from heavy panels donated by the tribal college in Mahnomen.

That table is currently center stage for craft work, and on any given evening people can be found there creating beadwork or sewing regalia or ornate blankets to honor special guests at the powwow.

On Thursdays, the Smokey Hill drum group plays there, a potluck is held, and the place sometimes fills up.

The Fairbanks’ once noticed a woman hanging outside in the cold. She loved the music, but didn’t think she would be welcome inside. They quickly set her straight.

“DEBWE is open to the public, if you hear any drumming, come on in,” Rob said.

With people quietly busy with their crafts, bolts of elk hide draped over one chair, colorful blankets hanging, waiting to be finished, and powwow regalia on display, there is a good feel to the place.

“It’s kind of like a medicine-type thing to do this stuff,” Roxanne said. “I think it’s a great place — we want other people to come over and enjoy it.”

People of Sioux descent sometimes felt like they weren’t welcome at the former Anishinaabe Center in Detroit Lakes, but that’s not the case with the DEBWE center.

“We just want to open up an invitation to let everybody know they’re welcome,” Roxanne said.

It’s easy to get involved. Those who don’t know how to do beadwork or sewing will be taught, either one-on-one or in organized classes.

The DEBWE powwow, which is always set for the Saturday after Thanksgiving, will start at 11 a.m. at the National Guard Armory with a pipe ceremony. The grand entry will be at noon. Several drum groups will attend.

“It’s not like a regular powwow, there’s no payout to dancers,” Rob said. “But if you want to come and dance, you’re welcome.”

There will be fun dances like the potato dance, in which partners must keep a potato balanced between their foreheads, the snake dance, which involves a conga line, and the dreaded (by men, anyway) “switch dance,”  in which male and female dancers must switch regalia for a dance.

There will be a hand drum contest and a feast, with venison, wild rice, salads and turkey sandwiches.

Craft booths will be set up for kids, and there will be a lot of venders from out of the area, selling soaps, beadwork, artwork, novelty items and some unique native crafts.

“Christmas is right around the corner, and there are going to be some very good venders there,” Rob said.

Volunteers to help serve food to elders and veterans are always welcome.